I just have to outrun your theory

The Problem

You’ve probably heard the joke about the two people camping in the woods who encounter a hungry predator. One person stops to put on running shoes. The other says, “Why are you wasting time? Even with running shoes you’re not going to outrun that animal!” The other replies, “I don’t have to outrun the animal, I just have to outrun you.”

For me this joke highlights a problem with the way some people argue about climate change. First of all, spreading uncertainty and doubt against competitors is a common marketing tactic, and as Naomi Orestes and Erik Conway documented in their book Merchants of Doubt, that same tactic has been used by marketers against concerns about smoking, DDT, acid rain and most recently climate change.

In the case of climate change, as with fundamentalist criticisms of evolution, there is a lot of stress on the idea that the climatic models are “only a theory,” and that they leave room for the possibility of error. The whole idea is to deter a certain number of influential people from taking action.

That Bret Stephens Column

The latest example is Bret Stephens, newly hired as an opinion columnist by New York Times editors who should really have known better. Stephens’s first column is actually fine on the surface, as far as it goes, aside from some factual errors: never trust anyone who claims to be 100% certain about anything. Most people know this, so if you claim to be 100% certain, you may wind up alienating some potential allies. And he doesn’t go beyond that; I re-read it several times in case I missed anything.

Since all Stephens did was to say those two things, none of which amount to an actual critique of climate change or an argument that we should not act, the intensely negative reactions it generated may be a little surprising. But it helps if you look back at Stephens’s history and see that he’s written more or less the same thing over and over again, at the Wall Street Journal and other places.

Many of the responses to Stephens’s column have pointed out that if there’s any serious chance of climate change having the effects that have been predicted, we should do something about it. The logical next step is talking about possible actions. Stephens hasn’t talked about any possible actions in over fifteen years, which is pretty solid evidence of concern trolling: he pretends to be offering constructive criticism while having no interest in actually doing anything constructive. And if you go all the way back to a 2002 column in the Jerusalem Post, you can see that he was much more overtly critical in the past.

Stephens is very careful not to recommend any particular course of action, but sometimes he hints at the potential costs of following recommendations based on the most widely accepted climate change models. Underlying all his columns is the implication that the status quo is just fine: Stephens doesn’t want to do anything to reduce carbon emissions. He wants us to keep mining coal, pumping oil and driving everywhere in single-occupant vehicles.

People are correctly discerning Stephens’s intent: to spread confusion and doubt, disrupting the consensus on climate change and providing cover for greedy polluters and ideologues of happy motoring. But they play into his trap, responding in ways that look repressive, inflexible and intolerant. In other words, Bret Stephens is the Milo Yiannopoulos of climate change.

The weak point of mainstream science

Stephens’s trolling is particularly effective because he exploits a weakness in the way mainstream scientists handle theories. In science, hypotheses are predictions that can be tested and found to be true or false: the hypothesis that you can sail around the world was confirmed when Juan Sebastián Elcano completed Magellan’s expedition.

Many people view scientific theories as similarly either true or false. Those that are true – complete and consistent models of reality – are valid and useful, but those that are false are worthless. For them, Galileo’s measurements of the movements of the planets demonstrated that the heliocentric model of the solar system is true and the model with the earth at the center is false.

In this all-or-nothing view of science, uncertainty is death. If there is any doubt about a theory, it has not been completely proven, and is therefore worthless for predicting the future and guiding us as we decide what to do.

Trolls like Bret Stephens and the Marshall Institute exploit this intolerance of uncertainty by playing up any shred of doubt about climate change. And there are many such doubts, because this is actually the way science is supposed to work: highlighting uncertainty and being cautious about results. Many people respond to them in the most unscientific ways, by downplaying doubts and pointing to the widespread belief in climate change among scientists.

The all-or-nothing approach to theories is actually a betrayal of the scientific method. The caution built into the gathering of scientific evidence was not intended as a recipe for paralysis or preparation for popularity contests. There is a way to use cautious reports and uncertain models as the basis for decisive action.

The instrumental approach

This approach to science is called instrumentalism, and its core principles are simple: theories are never true or false. Instead, they are tools for understanding and prediction. A tool may be more effective than another tool for a specific purpose, but it is not better in any absolute sense.

In an instrumentalist view, when we find fossils that are intermediate between species it does not demonstrate that evolution is true and creation is false. Instead, it demonstrates that evolution is a better predictor of what we will find underground, and produces more satisfying explanations of fossils.

Note that when we evaluate theories from an instrumental perspective, it is always relative to other theories that might also be useful for understanding and predicting the same data. Like the two people running from the wild animal, we are not comparing theories against some absolute standard of truth, but against each other.

In climate change, instrumentalism simply says that certain climate models have been better than others at predicting the rising temperature readings and melting glaciers we have seen recently. These models suggest that it is all the driving we’re doing and the dirty power plants we’re running that are causing these rising temperatures, and to reduce the dangers from rising temperatures we need to reconfigure our way of living around walking and reducing our power consumption.

Evaluating theories relative to each other in this way takes all the bite out of Bret Stephens’s favorite weapon. He never makes it explicit, but he does have a theory: that we’re not doing much to raise the temperature of the planet. If we make his theory explicit and evaluate it against the best climate change models, it sucks. It makes no sense of the melting glaciers and rising tides, and has done a horrible job of predicting climate readings.

We can fight against Bret Stephens and his fellow merchants of doubt. But in order to do that, we need to set aside our greatest weakness: the belief that theories can be true, and must be proven true to be the basis for action. We don’t have to outrun Stephens’s uncertainty; we just have to outrun his love of the status quo. And instrumentalism is the pair of running shoes we need to do that.

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